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Find examples & Dig deeper for Studying

Abstract concepts can be hard to understand. It tends to be far easier to form a mental image if you have a concrete example of something, Nebel says.

For instance, sour foods usually taste that way because they contain an acid. On its own, that concept might be hard to remember. But if you think about a lemon or vinegar, it’s easier to understand and remember that acids and sour go together. And the examples might help you to identify other foods’ taste as being due to acids.

Indeed, it helps to have at least two examples if you want to apply information to new situations. Nebel and others reviewed studies on this in July 2019. Their Journal of Food Science Education report describes how students can improve their study skills.

It’s hard to remember a string of facts and figures if you don’t push further. Ask why things are a certain way. How did they come about? Why do they matter? Psychologists call this elaboration. It’s taking class material and “asking a lot of how and why questions about it,” Nebel says. In other words, don’t just accept facts at face value.

Elaboration helps you combine new information with other things you know. And it creates a bigger network in your brain of things that relate to one another, she says. That larger network makes it easier to learn and remember things.

You’ll remember facts if you ask questions about why they’re so and how they fit with other things. For example, suppose a hungry man drove a car. Why might he do that?
Suppose you’re asked to remember a string of facts about different men, says McDaniel. For example, “The hungry man got into the car. The strong man helped the woman. The brave man ran into the house.” And so on. In one of his studies back in the ‘80s, college students had trouble remembering the bare statements. They did better when researchers gave them explanations for each man’s action. And the students remembered a whole lot better when they had to answer questions about why each man did something.

“Good understanding produces really good memory,” McDaniel says. “And that’s key for a lot of students.” If information just seems sort of random, ask more questions. Make sure you can explain the material. Better yet, he says, see if you can explain it to someone else. Some of his college students do this by calling home to explain what they’re learning to their parents.